Wham! netflix documentary

Why Wham! still puts the boom-boom into my heart

“Watching the Netflix documentary was deeply satisfying, but it was also a jumble of so many other things: nostalgic, joyful, entertaining, painful, tugging at my heartstrings and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Was there really ever a time when all that neon, hairspray and tiny shorts were considered sexy?”

I, like many other members of my (ahem) admittedly older generation, eagerly sat down earlier last week to watch the just-released Netflix documentary on Wham! 

The British pop duo, consisting of Georgios Kyriakos Panayiotou (aka George Michael) and Andrew Ridgeley, who took the world by storm in the ‘80s for four brief, glorious years and then amicably split up, were for many of us the soundtrack of our youth. One note of “Careless Whisper”’s saxophone solo, or the highly bop-worthy “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and I’m immediately transported back to a time when very little was behind me and nothing but possibility and promise lay before me.  

A walk down memory lane

While my literary tastes have always veered towards the serious and the cerebral, my musical tastes are undeniably dictated by my emotions. I like what I like and don’t really enjoy discussing or arguing musical preferences because I find it pointless. Like the popular adage goes, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” I viscerally react to what I react to. If music makes me feel something, makes me want to dance, cry, sing out loud, turn the volume way up, I fall in love with it.

I was a teen who read Simone de Beauvoir and Arthur Koestler on the beach, but who had Wham! posters all over my bedroom walls, sharing valuable real-estate space with NBA basketball players. When “Careless Whisper” came out, my poor parents were subjected to a minimum of six months of George singing about his guilty feet on repeat. My poor cousins, who were all considerably younger than me, were treated to Wham! songs and choreographies non-stop. Those songs are now part of their childhood memories, too. 

Watching the Netflix documentary was deeply satisfying, but it was also a jumble of so many other things: nostalgic, joyful, entertaining, painful, tugging at my heartstrings and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. Was there really ever a time when all that neon, hairspray and tiny shorts were considered sexy? 

More than anything, watching the doc was a bittersweet walk down memory lane. It made me miss George Michael and confirmed once again that he was indeed one of his generation’s most talented singers and songwriters. I ruminated on the unfairness of living so much of your life as a closeted gay man and then dying so very young when you were finally at peace with your sexuality. And it made me appreciate what an amazing friendship they had. Andrew needed George’s bottomless talent and drive, and George desperately needed Andrew’s confidence and compassion to get him out of his shell. The duo fundamentally existed because of who they were to each other.

A meteoric rise, a beautiful friendship

It’s hard to believe that George and Andrew were mere teens when they set off to conquer the world and only 23 years old when they played their final concert at Wembley Stadium, ending that chapter on their own terms. Most performers drag out their goodbyes; some musical acts have been performing “final” tours for the past 20 years. To have two people at the top of their game who willingly walked away from it all, to have Andrew respect his friend enough to let George pursue the solo career he so clearly craved by the end is admirable. Listening to archival footage, it’s amazing to see how fully formed George’s musical vision already was at such a young age, and what an accomplished singer, songwriter and producer he was, foreshadowing the solo career he would soon have.

There’s a moment when someone asks Andrew what he intended to do when the group would eventually split up and he replies, “Hopefully move on with grace,” and I was wowed by that answer. Grace is a hard thing for most people, especially someone so young. But that’s exactly what he did. None of the money and the fame ever truly got to their heads or affected their childhood bond, and I think that’s extraordinary.

When I learned the heartbreaking news of George’s passing in 2016, media reported the two friends had been playing Scrabble only a month before. I don’t know why, but that comforted the teen in me who had been so saddened by their split.

Emotionally charged memories

Psychologists who’ve studied our attachment to the music of our youth refer to the phenomenon as the “reminiscence bump,” which essentially describes the fact that people tend to disproportionately remember memories from when they were 10 to 30 years old. 

Scientists say this happens because these formative years are a period of many firsts. Our first crush, our first time having sex, our first real love, our first taste of independence, our first time travelling on our own, our first job, our first time making major life decisions, our first time really defining who we are and who we will become. These are deeply transformational years, and as a result our brains bind us to the music we were listening to.

We are in essence neurologically connected to the songs that transport us right back to that time. That’s why what we remain nostalgic for doesn’t always equal critically acclaimed songs or talent, but rather what we loved at a time when life was shiny and new. It’s why each generation’s ultimate throwback list is so fundamentally different and why we can objectively pick apart and scoff at another generation’s (or person’s) favourite songs while we’re completely unable to do the same for ours. 

A time capsule for our youth

The doc was also a vivid reminder of the passage of time. While there’s no need to tell me I’m getting older — my knees and my inability to process red wine the way I once used to remind me most days — seeing Andrew Ridgeley doing press tours really brought home the message. Ridgeley, now 60 years old, looks great. He’s fit and fabulous and last I saw him on Twitter he had just come back from a long-distance cycling trip raising money for charity. He still has that mischievous smile and the same twinkling eyes. But he’s a distinguished older gentleman who has now lost most of his now-grey hair and I was momentarily taken aback when I first saw him. 

After Wham! split, Andrew mostly disappeared from public life. He therefore remained frozen in time for me, the way classmates or that first crush we haven’t seen since high school still sports bleached tips or a six-pack when we think of them. They didn’t grow up, they didn’t grow old, they didn’t gain weight, they didn’t go grey, lose their hair, have kids, get a mortgage, arrive at an age where annual prostate exams are required. Their once-shiny youth didn’t dull. They remain forever 17 in your mind. And somewhere in that time capsule, so did you. 

“Wham! was never going to be middle-aged,” says Andrew. “It was always going to be that pure representation of us as youths.”

Riding that wave of nostalgia

That line in the documentary shot like an arrow through my middle-aged heart. That nostalgia and the moment in time they represent is precisely what makes them so golden. Ultimately, it’s not about Wham! They can be replaced with the singer or band you loved as a kid or teen. Van Halen, Radiohead, Prince, Tragically Hip, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Toni Braxton, the Jonas Brothers, Duran Duran, take your pic. Pix Lax and Anna Vissi if, like me, you grew up in Greece in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. Roch Voisine, les B.B., Mitsou, Corey Hart, Gerry Boulet, and Celine Dion singing “Incognito” if you grew up in Quebec during that same time period.

I can play a single note from the chorus of your favourite song as a teen, and you’ll be immediately transported through the magic of music to that moment in time when summers were carefree, when crushes were intense and sometimes ridiculously hopeless, when our parents were still young, when we had no need for expensive skincare routines and had the uncanny (still underappreciated at the time) ability to eat six times a day and never gain a single pound. We didn’t know how we would possibly survive the torture of those years, but we still loved every minute of them. 

Youth. Beautiful, fleeting, utterly naïve, routinely angsty, and sometimes awkward, but mostly sublime youth. 

Music is the closest thing we have to time travel. That is ultimately its sweetest power. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.